Lee Carseldine, an explosive left-handed batsman, featured in four Sheffield Shield finals ©Getty
It doesn’t hit you right away. Maybe it shouldn’t either. The term “play the game”, after all, is one that you expect to hear from an ex-cricketer. It’s only after Lee Carseldine has used it on numerous occasions that you realise why it sounds a tad discordant. To start with, the “game” he refers to has nothing to do with the one he played as a professional sportsman for over a decade.
Instead he’s referring to the game he was involved in on a remote island as part of a “tribe” with a bunch of people ranging from an “18-year-old skinny boy to a 65-year-old grandmother”. He’s talking about the time he had committed to “bringing mateship and loyalty” to a game that was based around “lying, cheating and stealing”. This is Carseldine, the former Queensland all-rounder and one-time Rajasthan Royals player, recalling the time he ended up as the runner-up on the first-ever edition of AustralianSurvivor, despite being tagged as “Mr Nice Guy”.
The irony of being a former elite-level sportsperson talking about playing games on a Reality TV show isn’t lost on the 44-year-old. If anything, it’s a running theme of our hour-long conversation where Carseldine keeps alternating between Lee the cricketer and Lee the Reality TV star. Despite the fact that he feels like the two are “different people” and is aware that his success has come in two “very different worlds”, Carseldine is clear on not wanting to be pigeon-holed as either. Where he does see a difference is in the reality of his current identity around Australia. Not that he shies away from it in any way.
“Basically now 8 out of 10 people will know me for Survivor and 2 out of 10 will be cricket fans and know me for cricket. What the show gave me is probably 10 times the amount of exposure I ever had playing cricket. It’s weird that the attention that I get now is purely because I’m on a TV show, which sometimes I scratch my head about,” Carseldine, who was back on the show for Australian Survivor: All Stars last year, tells Fame Dubai.
The essence of his current stardom, and where it has emanated from since he was on Survivor for the first time in 2016, certainly is evident when you arrive on the home page of his website. The clips that greet you aren’t those you’d automatically associate with someone who was better known as a cricketer at one point. Whether it’s Carseldine cinematically jumping into the ocean, showing off his rather envious physique, him dragging a truck with a rope tied around his waist or especially him posing for an underwear shoot. There is of course enough mention about his cricket career once you scroll down to the ‘biography’ sections. And he insists that while it might not come through on the face of it, there are still deep links between his days as an attacking left-handed batsman, who played in four Sheffield Shield finals, and a useful medium-pacer, who once dismissed Rahul Dravid in an IPL game.
“There are elements of my cricket profession that I’ve used in the Reality TV space. If the world ate me up and spat me back out, I would always go back to cricket,” says Carseldine, who in spite of his busy celebrity schedule is a member of the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA), a Queensland Past Player Welfare manager in addition to managing two women cricketers, including World Cup star Beth Mooney.
“Something I am really passionate about is how players handle retirement because I had to go through it twice. It helped me deal with the influx of attention that comes from being on Reality TV. When few people who aren’t used to being in that profile bubble get all this attention, they don’t know how to handle it and then when it goes – and it goes quickly – it’s a bit like when you retire or stop playing cricket, they’re on to the next player. In Reality TV, they’re on to the next show.”
The first of those “two retirements” that Carseldine talks about came when he was all of 29. A back surgery that involved replacing a degenerated disc with a titanium one that had gone rogue when he developed septicaemia due to one of the needles being infected. There were even fears that it had entered his blood stream and that his life was in danger. He remained bed-ridden for some time, being unable to walk, and was forced to bring his cricket career to a premature end.
Carseldine though managed to come out of it not just healthy but fitter than ever before and in four years’ time was back in Queensland colours. It led to him enjoying his best-ever run with the bat. That included averaging 99.33 with a strike-rate of 134.84 in the 2008-09 edition of Australia’s then-T20 league. His performances even attracted talk of a possible call-up to the national T20I squad. Although that wasn’t to be, Carseldine was bought by the Royals for the 2009 IPL, which was held in South Africa. Two seasons on, he was left out by Queensland and, now into his late 30s, the strokemaker decided to call it quits. But having come close to dying at an early age meant that Carseldine remained motivated to keep putting himself “out there” and challenging his body and mind to the hilt.
“When you go through such a life-threatening experience, you realise, ‘Hey I am mortal and there is so much more to try’. I reassessed what I wanted to do. That was a huge learning curve because when I finished sport, I wanted to get out there and make the most of everything. Because when your life nearly gets taken from you, you want to make sure you live every moment,” he says now.
Survivor wasn’t the first stop for Carseldine as part of his “live every moment” campaign once he retired from cricket. Desperately keen to step outside the sport bubble, he began by putting his body through some strenuous trials.
“I went on a spree of doing physical challenges – like I completed the Kokoda Trail (considered the most challenging endurance test in Australia) one year. I did a triathlon, a marathon, all these things I couldn’t do when I was playing because of contractual obligations. I wanted to now set aside time to challenge myself physically and mentally every year,” he explains.
So, when he heard about Survivor, a pioneering Reality TV show that started in the USA in 2000, coming Down Under, Carseldine looked at it as his next challenge. That it would lead to fame and fandom was never part of his original plans.
“I didn’t know anything about the game strategically and I thought worst-case scenario, I can at least set a goal to train. I had no idea I was going to last that long, 55 days. I thought I’ll get to maybe a couple of weeks and do some fun challenges, test my body and my mind and that was going to be my challenge for that year. But I did so well that first season that they asked me back this year,” he says.
When he heard about Survivor, a pioneering Reality TV show that started in the USA in 2000, coming Down Under, Carseldine looked at it as his next challenge ©Fame Dubai
While his fitness levels and life-long ability to be a team player made him a perfect fit in the early stages of the competition, Carseldine was to learn that he wasn’t a natural when it came to playing the political side of the game. He in fact reveals to have informed the producers of his wariness around the “lying and back-stabbing” aspects of being on the show.
“It was a show in which even though it’s not a scripted show, yes they can build characters up. They always ask about the way you’re going to play the game. Some people get casted because they want to play a sort of an evil type of character. I said: ‘I’m too old to change. I am going to play myself, very similar to how I played my sport, and if that gets me voted off in the first week so be it.’ I got nothing but support from my people and no one tried to talk me out of it, and I don’t know why,” he says with a chuckle.
“That first season I really struggled with the time I had to lie to people but that’s the nature of the game. Survivor fans and players don’t necessarily like my style of play. I wanted to show that you can play it in a different way and still win it and I came really close in the end.”
Not surprisingly, the best part about being on Survivor for Carseldine was competing in the physical challenges. It helped him bring out the competitiveness he’d lost since retiring from cricket. And at times he admits that the unbridled excitement in his celebrations after winning a team challenge, while being “dehydrated and completely spent”, were as genuine as what he’d experienced on the cricket field.
That winning ensured he and his teammates would spend at least two extra days on the island was an added bonus. It wasn’t always easy though, especially during the All Stars edition last year, where Carseldine was up against some “25-year-old physical beasts”. Yet again, it was the game-show part of these challenges that he struggled to comprehend, and not just when he was still on the island.
“There are people out there purely for exposure. There are people out there who also sabotage a challenge. It’s almost like having a team member who’s throwing a game. You find that out maybe some five months later when the show goes to air and you go: ‘I’d no idea you were throwing that game’. Because I played sport and there were a few more athletes in my tribe, and we just couldn’t go into a game strategically performing only at 50 per cent,” he says.
Carseldine manages to draw comparisons between some elements of doing Reality TV and being a cricketer. They include the need to perform your skills while shutting out all background noise – “six cameras in your face from the moment you land on the island” – and dealing with the “narration” side of the show, which he insists reminded him of facing up to the media in press conferences after the day’s play.
Getting used to having your personal life being laid out bare was a completely different experience, he reveals. “In the first season, I dated a girl (El Rowland) from the show. I think I felt this need to keep that public image up, share everything with my private life and that relationship is finished and now I’ve gone full circle and my next relationship is a lot quieter, without going so public about it,” he says.
It paled in comparison though to hearing about his mother, who’d been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, suffering a stroke while he was in Fiji shooting for All Stars last year. Carseldine decided to leave the show prematurely and bravely chose to let the producers play out his exit on camera.
“I lost my mom when I wasn’t home. I really fought with it whether I wanted me to be exposed looking so vulnerable, crying on national TV. I thought about what good can come from this tragedy. It was through the work that I wanted to do when I finished, raise some awareness about a really bad illness. We then did a towel challenge and what we achieved through the foundation was more than anything that I could have asked for. I knew the Survivor crew and that they weren’t going to chase ratings from it. They did it in a very respectable fashion,” says Carseldine.
Being locked out twice on faraway islands and left to live off nothing also prepared Carseldine to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent restrictions in his hometown of Brisbane. The “self-imposed” self-isolation, he believes, has allowed him to be in a good mental space while dealing with the uncertainty around most aspects of life over the last few months.
“The isolation over there was probably way more than what we had to experience here now. You get told where you can and cannot go – which is basically what’s happening now with the government telling us what we can and cannot do – and you’re stripped away from all the things that you like doing, going to movies, going to a pub, catching up with friends,” he says.
In some ways though, he admits that along with it being his tryst with some cricketing royalty, the IPL also helped him subconsciously prepare for the world of glitz and glamour. To blend with a mix of diverse people from around the world is a “perfect sort of microcosm” that he found the Survivor environment to be too.
“They’re all coming together in a short period of time to win a competition. The IPL was great to share a dressing-room with legends like Graeme Smith and Shane Warne along with some great Indian players like Ravindra Jadeja and Yusuf Pathan. Except for Russell Crowe owning South Sydney (in the NRL) we don’t have celebrities involved with sport in Australia. In the IPL I remember these stunning women walking in and out of the room and I remember thinking I need to find out who this person is. Oh right, she owns the team and oh right she’s mega famous. That’s the beauty of Indian cricket,” he says.
Carseldine reveals to have received a lot of support from his former Queensland teammates once he decided to take the plunge into the Reality TV world even if they had one common lament about his appearance.
“Guys like Kasper (Michael Kasprowicz) and (Andy) Bichel, Stuey Law and especially (Andrew Symonds) always put a bit of shit on me because I never had a shirt on and I said I’m living on an island mate. I find that I’m not getting any younger and it’s not getting easier to stay fit. I also tell them I don’t keep my t-shirt off just to show off but it’s always for a cause. I am fitter now than I ever was during my playing days.”
Carseldine does believe a show like Survivor would do good for many sportspersons who are looking to learn more about themselves after retiring. And though surprised to learn that Symonds did have a two-week walk-on role on Big Boss (the Indian version of Big Brother) he is confident that the former Australian all-rounder would do well if he were to become the second cricketer to step onto a Survivor island – but with a rider.
“He loves his fishing, but he probably wouldn’t put up with a lot of shit in terms of people trying to vote him off. He won’t take to that too kindly.”
© Fame Dubai